11/12/2008 12:00AM

Slots should pump up purses


NEW ORLEANS - There will be more than one opening at Fair Grounds on Friday. Not only will the track begin its 137th racing season but a grand opening will be held for the new permanent slots parlor on the grounds.

With more than 600 machines now housed in the 30,000-square-foot annex to the grandstand, Fair Grounds has more than doubled the number of slot machines on the premises. The added numbers should result in an increase in slot revenue, and with it, augmentation of the purses for the racing season.

The 250 slot machines operated in the temporary facility at the Fair Grounds generated $18 million revenue in its first 10 months of operations, with 10.5 percent of the revenue earmarked for purse supplements for Thoroughbred racing at the track. According to Fair Grounds publicist Lenny Vangilder, the slot revenue will represent about 6 percent of the expected $31 million in purses to be offered over the season.

The newly installed president of Fair Grounds, Austin Miller, said he believes that the increase in purses to $375,000 a day this meet gives the track a chance to improve handle, with more and better horses racing in New Orleans.

"We are very focused on making sure our product is number one," said Miller. "The national trend is down, but we are hoping to buck the trend."

While the Fair Grounds won the right to house up to 700 slot machines in a city-wide referendum in 2003, the path to the reality of the slot parlor was filled with twists and turns.

After passage of the referendum, owner Brian Krantz sold the track to Churchill Downs Inc. in 2004. Upon taking ownership, Churchill began the long process of getting city council approval for its plans, which finally came in June 2005, shortly before the August landfall of Hurricane Katrina.

When the track reopened on Thanksgiving Day in 2006 after a year lost to Katrina, it was still operating video poker machines, the precursors to the slots. The slot parlor opened in a temporary facility in September 2007.

Fair Grounds still operates eight video poker parlors, which are housed in offtrack betting parlors in the surrounding metro area.

The new slots annex sits just to the east of the valet parking entrance, with the recorded sounds of coins hitting the collection trays greeting visitors on their way to the paddock or the grandstand.

Housed within the parlor is a buffet, with seating for 120 people, and two restaurants. The slots facility is open daily 9 a.m. to midnight, and 10 a.m. to midnight on Sundays. The hours are regulated by the accord struck between the neighborhood and Churchill Downs Inc., and ratified by the city council.

While the increase in purses is welcomed by the horsemen, they would like to see the focus of the track remain on the horse racing.

"The last thing I want to do is to rely on slots or video poker for the health of this sport," said Sean Alfortish, president of the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "They are supplements for the wagering, which is the meat and potatoes of this sport."

Still, few will argue with an increase in purses.

"To have an 87-day meet with high-level purses is an opportunity for horsemen to do well before we start having to move around the country," said trainer Al Stall. "I hope the horsemen make money and I hope Churchill Downs makes money."